30 years ago, Lou Reed and John Cale released Songs for Drella, a quasi-Velvets reunion exploring their fractious relationship with Warhol
The Velvet Underground was never the same after cellist and multi-instrumentalist John Cale left in September 1968. A result of growing aggravations between him and band leader Lou Reed, Cale’s departure came after Reed gave an ultimatum to the rest of the band: it’s either him or me. Reed had fired the band’s trailblazing manager, Andy Warhol, only a year prior, and thus by the end of 1968, the three creative proponents of one of America’s most influential bands were permanently splintered. Reed himself would quit two years later.
In the years that followed, relations between the three artists deteriorated further. Warhol harboured a bitterness towards Reed that intensified after the singer declined to visit him in hospital after he was shot in June 1968. And while estranged Velvet Underground members Lou Reed, Nico, and John Cale did reunite on stage at the Bataclan in Paris for a one-off show in 1972, it was more of an epitaph than a new beginning for the band – it would be Reed’s last ever performance with Nico. 12 years later, Reed famously sat in the same row as Warhol at the 1984 MTV Awards – and shunned him. It would be the last time the two were seen together in public.
In 1988, 20 years on from White Light/White Heat, the album that had served as Lou Reed’s P45 to both Warhol and Cale, Andy Warhol entered the New York Hospital for gallbladder surgery. He died the following day, at just 58 years old. The news was an unexpected shock that resonated across the city and the wider world. For Reed, whose relationship with Warhol had remained strained, it was a reconciliatory moment. Only a few days after Warhol’s memorial service at St. Patrick’s Cathedral in Manhattan, he and Cale were discussing the idea of a collaborative work as a tribute to their former mentor.
Songs for Drella would eventually be released on April 11, 1990, and is a standout work in both of Cale and Reed’s careers. On its 30th anniversary, Dazed explores the lasting significance of this timeless record – the final musical collaboration of Reed, Cale, and Warhol.
IT’S THE CLOSEST THING WE GOT TO A VELVET UNDERGROUND REUNION ALBUM
“This is a rock group called the Velvet Underground,” John Cale sings on “Style it Takes”, and in that moment it feels like a genuine triumph: the legendary art-rock band reincarnated, two decades on from their final disintegration. While Songs for Drella was not released under the Velvet Underground name, the songs channel both the sound and spirit of the band. As a retrospective on Reed and Cale’s lives with Warhol, performed by the band’s most potent creative forces, it had to.
The crunched-up chords’ “Work” and “Starlight” immediately recall the fuzzy clamour of “I’m Waiting for the Man”, while “Images” screams with full-on avant-garde feedback and noise, a la “European Son” or “White Light/White Heat”. “Style It Takes” and “Hello It’s Me” recycle the romantic guitar-and-viola interloping of “Sunday Morning” and “Stephanie Says”, while the narrative style of “A Dream” was notably modelled on the Velvet Underground track “The Gift”. The chirpy pianos on “Smalltown” even riff on the nursery rhyme jaunt of “I’m Sticking With You”. And “I Believe” relates to the fallout of an event previously addressed by the Velvets on “Andy’s Chest”: the 1968 shooting of Warhol by Valerie Solanas.
Songs for Drella is not a pastiche, though. Instead, it feels like a natural return to where Reed and Cale had previously left off. While each had traversed both critically-acclaimed pop music (Reed’s Transformer; Cale’s Paris 1919) and avant-garde experimentation (Reed’s Metal Machine Music, Cale's Church of Anthrax' in the 70s, the 80s had generally seen them struggle to maintain a strong musical identity. By returning to their roots after 20 years of reinvention, Cale and Reed were able to strip things back to their very foundations without fear of a wrong turn.
The record’s noticeable absence of drums is the only glaring departure from the original Velvet Underground formula; the songs are, instead, hurtled forward by Reed’s furious strumming and Cale’s chiming pianos. With the tension between the two players amplified by the lack of a backbeat, there is little to distract from the record’s most significant element: the lyrics.
IT’S A CONCEPT ALBUM THAT TELLS THE STORY OF ANDY WARHOL’S RELATIONSHIP WITH THE VELVET UNDERGROUND
The intention of Songs for Drella was to make a rock album that told the story of Warhol’s life based on the duo’s positive memories of him. The most satisfactory way they could do this, in Reed and Cale’s eyes, was through a song cycle that chronologically recounts the story of their relationships.
Several songs are sung from the perspective of Warhol himself, including “Style It Takes”, which explores Warhol’s early encounters with Reed, and concludes with a list of Warhol’s experimental films. In contrast, “Open House” provides insight into Warhol’s peculiar personal life when he lived “in the apartment above the bar” in Manhattan.
“It Wasn’t Me”, meanwhile, vocalises Warhol's rejection of the blame for Edie Sedgwick's death by drug overdose in 1971. Pinned as a scapegoat, he always maintained that he was not responsible for the actions of the fashion model and ‘it girl’. She had, in the mid-60s, become addicted to barbiturates following a creative partnership with Warhol centralised at his notorious art studio and party space, the Factory. But as the song goes, “I never said stick a needle in your arm and die… You’re killing yourself; you can’t blame me.”
IT DIDN’T ENTIRELY RESOLVE THE FEUD BETWEEN REED AND WARHOL
‘Drella’ was Warhol’s nickname during his Factory years. A portmanteau of ‘Dracula’ and ‘Cinderella’, it was meant as an endearment referring to the two conflicting sides of his personality. But Warhol was not a fan of this moniker – and its use in the record’s title helps to underline the depth and complexity of his and Reed’s unresolved issues.
Early friction is illustrated explicitly in “Work”, in which Reed highlights the intricacies of his and Warhol’s working relationship. “He said I was lazy, I said I was young,” sings an incensed Reed, divulging a series of tensions between the pair before the song climaxes with the lyric, “I fired him on the spot, he got red and called me a rat.” It was this notorious exchange that permanently fractured the pair’s relationship, and an essential piece of context to understand the record as a whole.
“A Dream”, which recites passages from Warhol’s personal diaries as lyrics, illuminates Warhol’s perspective of the enduring fallout. Both Cale and Reed are mentioned explicitly in the song’s lyrics – but the ones referring to Reed are noticeably more biting than those of his bandmate: “You know I hate Lou, I really do,” utters Warhol through the voice of Cale.
The album eventually concludes with “Hello It’s Me”, Lou Reed’s final address to Warhol. “I’m sorry that I doubted your good heart / I really miss you,” he sings, before closing with a solemn and direct “Goodbye, Andy”, the album’s most poignant and lingering moment. In this final address, Reed confirms that the duo’s troubled relationship, while destined to remain forever unresolved, is ultimately characterised by an enduring love and respect.
IT DIRECTLY CONTRIBUTED TO THE ONLY VELVET UNDERGROUND LIVE REUNION
When Songs for Drella was released in 1990, critics and fans rejoiced about the prospect of a Velvet Underground reunion, despite Reed’s rebuttal of these claims. But the idea was lent further credence by a series of performances of the album that took place at the Brooklyn Academy of Music and the nearby Church of St. Ann. This was the closest America would ever get to a reformation of the Velvet Underground.
Wishful Europeans were luckier, though. In June 1990, a live performance of Songs for Drella at the Cartier Foundation for Contemporary Art in Paris, for an exhibition on Andy Warhol, culminated with an impromptu performance of “Heroin” with fellow Velvet Underground founding members Maureen Tucker and Sterling Morrison. It was the first time all four members of the classic line-up had been on stage together in 22 years. In 1992, the group tentatively rehearsed together, and in 1993 the Velvet Underground announced a European tour – the first in their history.
The six-week tour would end up doing little to alleviate the pre-existent strains between band members. While a live album recorded at a triplicate of Paris shows was released, plans to perform on MTV Unplugged and tour across the USA were scrapped as a result of Reed’s belligerent behaviour in regards to his financial earnings from the reunion. With Sterling Morrison dying in 1995, the European reunion would prove to be their last, and John Cale subsequently vowed never to work with Reed again.
JOHN CALE RELEASED ANOTHER CAREER HIGHLIGHT THE SAME YEAR
Immediately after the release of Songs for Drella, John Cale went into the studio with former Roxy Music member Brian Eno. The ambient music pioneer and prolific producer had contributed to Cale’s work sporadically in the mid-70s, while Cale had returned the favour by playing viola on Eno’s 1975 album Another Green World. Eno produced Cale’s 1989 album Words for the Dying the year before, but Wrong Way Up would be their first full collaborative album.
Impressively, Cale’s second collaborative work of 1990 matched the superb quality of Songs for Drella, as Eno’s drum machines and synthesisers complemented Cale’s resplendent piano and viola work. Both shared vocal duties – in fact, it was the first time Eno had been coaxed into singing extensively on a pop record since 1977’s Before and After Science. “Spinning Away” is perhaps the finest pop moment in either musician’s careers for over a decade.
Like on Songs for Drella, emotional tensions between the two collaborators on Wrong Way Up overshadowed the album’s production – they are visually embodied by the five daggers on the album’s original artwork, separating the profiles of Eno and Cale. The album title itself reflects the two artists’ allegedly incompatible creative pulls. Years later, Eno would describe Cale’s role as “bursts of genius interspersed with oceans of inattention”, while Cale retorted, “I haven’t figured out yet what Brian’s notion of cooperation, or collaboration, is.” They, too, would never collaborate in such format again.
IT WAS THE ONLY POSSIBLE WAY FOR THINGS TO END
In his lifetime, Andy Warhol had been a catalyst for artistic innovation. The leading figure in pop art had not only personified the most culturally significant modern art movement in America, but he also launched the careers of one of the most subversive and influential musical groups of the 20th century: the Velvet Underground. But the three individuals at the centre of this partnership were always a volatile core. And while it is fitting that Warhol’s death inspired the reunion of the Velvet Underground, it is also equally fitting that this reunion was not to last. Both Warhol and the Velvet Underground’s legacies, therefore, remain intact: these explosive cultural forces shone brightly, but in return, were extinguished far too soon.